Being quaintly or unusually Christian is as American as hot dogs. I was raised in the Episcopal Church, but my spiritual history is as distinct as anybody else's in the great awakening around these parts.
Sometimes driving the Buick across these vast farmlands I try to focus my thoughts, turn off the radio. Open up to possible new vistas of the old, or old vistas of the new.
It's not easy to say anything new about Jesus Christ. He has been pretty well covered by professional preachers, theologians, memoirists & historians. The great spectrum of denominational & devotional Christian life, going back 2000+ years, has its own very deep traditions of scriptural interpretation, preaching, devotion, & shared ways of living. Then of course there is the Jewish tradition, going back at least another 1000 years, on which all this Christianity is founded. So it takes some moxie, some chutzpah, to try to say something new about Jesus. What's more, words can only go so far in the plain detached public sphere, dislocated from any solid participative readership, any engaged reception. It's one thing to listen to a sermon or an evangelical homily (you can find a lot of these - some very complex - on the radio around these parts) within a context of prior belief or experience. It's another to come at a blog post, out of the blue.
What's more, I'm not sure I actually have anything new to say about Jesus. But we will try.
An author has a worldview, a way of looking at things. She tries to bring it across to the reader. In the process, she has an implicit sense of the reader's reaction to whatever she writes. This sense of a response conditions what is actually written - it's a sort of inherent dialectic. You are there as a kind of potential interlocutor. I have to try to convince you of what I think I see. It's an effort of persuasion.
So I was driving along in the Buick yesterday, somewhere in Pennsylvania. I was thinking as I often do in a vague way about the political meaning of kingship (having been reading a biography of Richard III, the one they found under the parking lot). The monarch is a representative of tribal or collective leadership, among other things. Humans live in groups : the king is an invention put together in response to a social problem - how to live together amicably in a group.
The idea of the Messiah of Israel had a royal, a political dimension. In one sense the Messiah was a cultural response to the fact that Israel was often a people in bondage to more powerful, and foreign, peoples. The Messiah would be a "son of King David", who would restore the nation.
But there was more to the messianic idea in Israel. At its root was a forecast that the Messiah to come would be "a prophet like Moses". Moses was more than a king for Israel. He was the ultimate "founding father", in a sense. He was the prophet who bound Israel in its covenant with the Most High God - he was the servant of Yahweh, who stood before Him & spoke with Him. This is a religious, priestly dimension, a category separate from kingship per se. For Israel, in a sense, Yahweh is the ultimate King : Israel's kings are Yahweh's chosen servants.
Now it is with this sketch in the background that we call to mind the specific mission & message of Jesus. The leadership role assumed by Jesus was mocked as "royal" by the Romans (at least as depicted in the Gospels), and then, later, royal regalia & symbolism have been heaped upon him in the centuries of Christian tradition which followed. Jesus is called "king of kings". But it's important to keep in mind the distinction between "messiah" and king. Jesus was attempting to do & say something on a distinctly different scale.
The difference - the fork in the path - which Jesus' message instigated has both spiritual & political consequences. How so? What is the crux of this message? Let's cut to the chase, Henry.
I remembered driving along today an old study I read once, title I can't recall - about the themes of justice and mercy in the medieval English poem Piers Plowman. The author detailed the medieval understanding of a sharp divide between earth and heaven, time & eternity. Good deeds are not rewarded on earth; they are stored up for honor in heaven. This is partly why people are instructed to give alms in secret. It's not about vanity & worldly renown; it's not about the earthly self at all. It redounds to the benefit of the eternal soul.
Let's say there are three central branches to the tree of Jesus' worldview : the living God; God's creation; and the eternal soul. The Incarnation and the Resurrection are in a sense corollaries or consequences of two most basic things : God's power to create the cosmos, reality as we know it; and the fact that the soul is eternal and thus has the potential to "live" again, in any form or body or time or place which the Creator chooses.
Jesus is saying something even more radical & astounding. He saying that he & the Creator are united, that they share one Spirit. The personal Creator is "father" to Jesus as "son". Comprehended from a certain angle, this is an astonishing proclamation of joy. There is nothing to compare to the joy expressed here. Jesus is saying he will live again, "with all the company of heaven" - among the ever-living spirits in God's company - & return again in the flesh to earth. & he is suggesting that anyone who sees & understands this way of seeing things will also recognize their own ever-living soul, their own spiritual connection with that "company of heaven".
This is mind-boggling in a way - it's so upsetting to our everyday sense of mundane reality, the humdrum roll-along of time to old age & obliteration. The "logical", "scientific" mind tends to reject such spiritual visions.
Yet there is a logic to the ancient & medieval worldview also. I think of it as the logic of creation, or the logic of the beautiful. We see the spiritual greatness of certain men & women, certain culture heroes - & we recognize something beautiful in the lives they have lived, in their spiritual victory over the pettiness & evils of human social life. Then we start to notice the same beauty in the lives of ordinary unsung people too : we see the spiritual in nature, so to speak. The logic of these examples relates back to the argument for creation : that the cosmos is too splendid & marvelous to be meaningless & empty; it has come from nothing out of some kind of powerful creative will-to-be, will-to-love.
But I want to bring this all back to the idea of the Messiah. The Messiah of Israel is distinct from a king; yet the message of Jesus, as messiah, has real political repercussions. The Good News of our eternal soul, and its place in an eternal, heavenly realm, applies to every man and woman on earth. Suddenly our moral, ethical, social existence is not chained to a particular place and time or a particular form of government or economy. Ethics has been universalized. Morality has been universalized. Our own spiritual future has been universalized. We are members of an eternal association, the "company of heaven". As Dante put it in the Divina Commedia (to paraphrase from memory), he looks forward to that day when he will be "citizen of that Rome where Christ is Roman".
The notion that I have an eternal soul - that a priestly messiah-figure, one Jesus, has called me to recognize this fact & participate in a newly-visible, eternal community, a universal polity - is the kind of powerful message of hope & liberation capable of shaping a new way of life. As Jesus says in the Gospels, "you must be born again". You who were a child of human parents, here in a particular spot & time on earth, are being invited to become a "child of God".
We have to imagine - to conceptualize - & then to recognize, that Jesus with this message of soul freedom is re-shaping the political & social, as well as the spiritual, identity of every human being on earth. We are getting our eternal life back. This kind of moral liberation has political consequences, historical consequences. It affects persons living under every form of human social regime & political polity.
Roger Williams, the Rhode Island pioneer & radical thinker, called himself a "Seeker". He was trying to understand the right relation between spiritual life and social, political life in the world. & he became a powerful advocate for what he called "soul liberty" or "liberty of conscience". In this way he was a kind of sponsor for all the wild & different experimental Christian sects which sprang up in 18th & 19th century America. But at the base of his own thinking was this old medieval sense of a "realm", a "kingdom", slightly different from this present world. It was the same sense underlying the moral algebra of Piers Plowman : some kind of secret exchange between earth & heaven, time & eternity.
Critics of Christianity have condemned this two-tiered picture of reality as escapist, otherworldly, quietist, detached. But all these critiques are based on a superficial misreading of Jesus' message. The Incarnation is the ultimate expression of the joining, the wedding, of these two dimensions. The "providence" of the plan of Jesus' "heavenly father" is a work involving, first, the liberation of the person, through a recognition of eternal life; and second, the redemption & repair of the whole creation - as a result of the joy instilled by this very liberation. The message of the new Pope Francis (along with the old St. Francis) is certainly in line with this concept. Humankind is called upon to restore the right relation to the beautiful creation.
I've rambled on longer than I wanted to here. But Henry the old Plantagenet feels a deep kinship with the poet's joy of Dante, & the poet's elation in Mandelstam (a Dante reader), & the spiritual cheer & brimming good fellowship I find in that Messiah's words & gestures, this vision of vitality & personhood which has the victory over Time & Death. This Israel is real to me. May it be for you, too, whoever you are - out there beyond Elkhart or in Elkhart, inside or beyond this green wide Amish-land.
the old Plantagenet pops up in Elkhart again